Helping Your Child Deal With Death

by Dena Embrey – Courier & Press – July 7, 2015 –

During recent months our community has experienced the tragic deaths of several children and adolescents. This tough reality is one most adults struggle to understand, because children aren’t supposed to die. What about the impact a child’s death has on other children (i.e. classmates, teammates, friends, and family)?

The first instinct of parents and caregivers might be to protect their child from the loss and inevitable grieving process, but shielding children from the loss may do more harm than good. According to the National Alliance for Grieving Children, parents should be honest and open with children about the death and not be afraid to use words like “dead” or “die.”

We must also be careful not to be too vague about how the person died. Telling children the truth builds trust and creates an open line of communication for questions they may have later. Children understand far more than we give them credit for, and by withholding details we risk leaving them to process complicated information on their own.

There is no right or wrong way for children to grieve, and their reactions depend on several factors: age, developmental level, relationship with the deceased, previous life experiences, and family and social support. Some children may want to talk about the person who died, while others may have little reaction and act as though everything is fine. It is important to listen and strive to understand the child’s unique reaction and not assume what he/she might be feeling.

As adults we often avoid talking about the deceased for fear that we will intensify our child’s feelings of grief. This, however, might send the wrong message to our children, making them feel that they should not talk about the person who died or that they are the only one grieving.

Acknowledging and expressing our own feelings of grief can give children permission to express their feelings. If your child seems frightened or overly concerned by your expressions of grief, explain to them how you are feeling and reassure them that you will be OK.

Another way to help children understand they are not alone is to encourage them to spend time with friends and peers who are also impacted by the death. Friends and family can be excellent sources of support during the grieving process.

Just as children grieve in their own way, they also grieve in their own time. As a parent you may worry that your child’s period of grieving is lasting too long. As children have the opportunity to express their feelings, share their memories, and process the death, their grief will begin to decrease in intensity.

However, grief is a lifelong journey and has no time limit. It is not uncommon for children to experience grief during different life stages. Be patient, willing to listen, and help normalize your child’s feelings. Grief is a normal reaction to the loss of someone significant in our lives. Grief is not a problem that can be fixed by adults; it is an experience the child is living.

If you have concerns about your child’s reaction to a recent loss and feel his/her grief is not within normal limits or expectations, seek help from a mental health provider in your community. More information about childhood grief can be found on websites for The National Child Trauma Stress Network (nctsn.org) or the National Alliance for Grieving Children (nationalallianceforgrievingchildren.org).